Fear Dominates at Immigration Protests in Austin, Houston

Anti-immigration protestors at a demonstration at the Mexican consulate in Austin, July 18.
Sarah Mortimer
Anti-immigration protestors at a demonstration at the Mexican consulate in Austin, July 18.

During the evolution of the recent border crisis, Texas has seen no outbursts like the one that took place in Murrieta, California, when a raucous mob blocked the arrival of Central American migrants to a detention center in the town. But given the character of the state’s politics at the moment, it seemed inevitable that there would be demonstrations of some kind.

We’re in the middle of an election year in which rhetoric on the border has been particularly heated—occasionally verging on naked racism—so Texas seemed ripe for more directly expressed anger. But the first incarnation of those protests took place today, and they were pretty underwhelming. Gatherings organized by the conservative group Overpasses for America took place at dozens of locations throughout the state, with more set for tomorrow. Most protests didn’t appear to be well-attended, or well-organized. In major cities, the protests took place outside Mexican consulates, for reasons passing understanding—it’s the surge in immigrants from Central America that’s at issue—and which left the distinct impression that this crowd was not particularly well-read about the origins of the current crisis.

But these protests are never really about policy: They’re about the accumulation of assorted resentments. Of the 20 or so people that gathered at Austin’s Mexican consulate on Friday, several seemed mostly concerned about the Benghazi attacks. Several called for the impeachment of President Obama. And talk about the border was fairly unspecific. Curiously, for a crowd that saw the open border as an existential threat to their freedom and prosperity, they faced away from the consulate and toward the street, unconcerned with the steady stream of Mexican nationals getting consular services who wove in and out of Gadsden-flag waving oldsters.

Shelly Kramer, one of the protesters, urged Perry to deploy the National Guard. Perry has spent much of the last few weeks trying to convince these people he’s their man: But the border, as is its wont, remains insecure. Many believe “securing the border” is just around the corner, and well within the government’s reach, if it just went a bit further. Kramer likened America to a soiled dove, peddling its wares too cheaply.

“America means so much to me, and I feel like they’re cheapening it and giving it away for free. So it really bothers me,” she said. “The administration—this was an agenda on their part. And it’s so awful to use children.”

Many of the protestors, like Kramer, believe the recent surge in migrants is someone’s grand plan—for something. One man held a sign reading, “Today’s illegals, tomorrow’s Democrats.”

A small number of protestors also gathered at the Mexican consulate in Houston.
Fauzeya Rahman
A small number of protestors also gathered at the Mexican consulate in Houston.

In Houston, a similar protest took place near the Mexican consulate there. Liz Theiss, with a group called Stop the Magnet, told the Observer that the only way to stop illegal migration was to make the country an inhospitable place for migrants.

“Our focus is to go after the businesses that are hiring them, or the Republican politicians that are hiring them,” she said. “A lot of these unaccompanied minors, 18 to 20 percent, are gang members. They’re very dangerous, we don’t know what their true names are or their health situation. They’re completely unvetted and being dumped off in cities across America. Americans are not allowed to weigh in. They’re not allowed to weigh in whether or not they want these people in their community. This is tyranny.”

In Austin, protestor Rachel Brunson, holding a sign with the hated hammer and sickle, said that “Mexico and the countries of Central America are working together to get these kids here,” and that Obama is helping them. She knows this because of the emails she’s gotten from her friends, and the Texas Public Policy Foundation.

She read one of them to an Observer reporter, a piece by conservative writer Rick Wells, who alleges House Speaker John Boehner is a pawn of the American Communist Party and that Mexico is flooding the United States with child migrants to bring the country to its knees. The Observer gently suggests that some of Wells’ assertions may not be true. “Many things we’re told aren’t true,” she says, a knowing look on her face.

Why would Mexico want Guatemalan minors to come to Texas? There’s a pause. “I’m not sure,” she says. “They must have a reason.” What’s the reason? A longer pause. “I’m not sure,” she says. Then she realizes the answer. “To hurt us. To break our economic system.”

She doesn’t like Perry, who has failed, in his 14 years in office to “secure the border.” She likes Ted Cruz. The people here love Cruz. Several have signs that echo Cruz’s call to action: “Make DC Listen.” Cruz, of course, is Cuban-American, and Cubans have long benefited from their special status as political refugees in this country.

But that hasn’t stopped Cruz from taking a particularly hard line on refugees from countries whose present situation is dire. He intends to derail any bill addressing the current crisis that doesn’t include rolling back DACA, a program which offers limited protection from deportation to immigrants who came here without authorization as children.

In other words, Cruz doesn’t just want all the people currently detained deported, he wants to expand the scope and scale of deportations. Imagine one day that the child of a Honduran migrant currently in a detention facility has become a United States senator from Texas, and that child tells her children: “In the bad old days, in my father’s time, there was a man who wanted us gone from here named Ted Cruz…”

Sarah MortimerThe people at this protest are fringe, but Cruz and friends have real influence. And they are responding to the populist anger generated by groups like these. Why are these people angry? They’ve been told a lie: That the border can be totally secured, locked down like you would a bank. It can’t—not really. You can put more people on the border (though it’s very unclear what the National Guard could really do) but migrants will never stop coming, and neither will smugglers.

For years, these activists have been told, by people like Cruz, that the border can be “secured.” But it doesn’t happen. It’s easy to understand why they’re so mad about it. The lie has been told for so long that even politicians seem to believe it: Dan Patrick won his primary campaign by telling it, and he’ll be accountable to that promise if he wins and takes the state senate’s gavel in 2015. Future state Sen. Bob Hall is one of a number of conservative activists who has generated an interesting view of the Texas Constitution, which allows the state to deploy massive state power against an “invasion.” This is one of them, they say.

In theory, it should be possible to tackle both aspects of our immigration problem at once—increase enforcement while expanding legal immigration. But that’s not the political reality of the moment. The crowds at the Mexican consulates on Friday may not have added up to much, but they’re a reminder of why this issue has become so intractable.

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Published at 5:18 pm CST